Washington is a great place to live, work, play and raise a family. Not many people here in northwest Washington are going to dispute that. We might differ on how to go about improving and protecting our quality of life, but most would agree: It's worth protecting, and we should never stop trying to make it even better.
Unfortunately, the different visions that good people have can sometimes collide, and the ongoing controversy about coal is an example that hits close to home. Whether you favor establishing a coal port at Cherry Point or oppose it - or have yet to pick a side - let's do a little visualization.
Picture a coal train a mile and a half long rolling through our world-famous tulip fields, near the end of its long trip across the state - through the Columbia River Valley, past vineyards and orchards and wheat farms, through cities and suburbs.
If you enjoy this picture, you're likely envisioning that, along with thousands of tons of coal, that train is bringing jobs. If not, you're probably seeing a plume of toxic coal dust following the train all the way from the Idaho border to the Puget Sound.
Either way, now picture this train making that long trip over and over and over again, as many as 2,700 times a year to load China-bound ships at our northwestern ports.
If the permits for the Gateway Pacific Terminal at Cherry Point are approved early next year, this coal curtain would be the new reality for our state. On one hand, the project promises to bring new jobs to an area that has been particularly hard hit by the economic recession. But we have to ask ourselves, at what cost do these new jobs come?
The short answer: No one knows. We've heard glowing predictions from boosters, and horror stories from committed opponents. But, there has been no comprehensive or independent study on the economic, environmental or public health ramifications of this project.
That's why we, along with other lawmakers from across the state, have called on Gov. Gregoire to form an emergency task force to put immediate focus on the entire state impact, including Cherry Point. The only study currently under way is being conducted by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers; the Corps is following its mandate, which is to do an area-wide review of the proposals for all five coal terminals envisioned for the Pacific Northwest.
The environmental impact statement they issue will be important, and instructive, but it will not tell us everything we need to know. How many jobs, and what kind; what affect would the trains have on our crops, our air and our water; what would 18 more trains per day do to our already-strained transportation infrastructure?
We're calling on the governor to assemble a team from several state agencies, including Ecology, Transportation, Agriculture and Commerce, to take part in drafting the EIS, with Ecology taking the co-lead with the Corps. The Jan. 13, 2013, deadline is quickly approaching, and it is best for everyone on all sides of the issue to have the clearest picture possible before we proceed.
Two years ago, the Legislature voted with strong bipartisan agreement to make Washington the first coal-free state in the nation. We're closing the largest source of non-transportation related greenhouse-gas in our state by 2025 - a real victory for both clean air and clean energy. Washington also was the first state to require CO2 mitigation for any new C02-emitting electricity plant. That is why we are in the top 10 state states in developing clean-energy jobs.
Here in Whatcom and Skagit counties, the proposed terminals would drop the coal curtain on top of Bellingham and Mount Vernon, two major cities in our district. Both cities have worked hard to revitalize their downtowns and waterfronts, drawing small businesses and clean jobs. It would be a sad irony if, on the heels of those victories, we inadvertently stumbled backward.
In the end, of course, we may find that the benefits would outweigh the drawbacks. At this point, we simply do not know. But there is one thing we do know: To proceed with a project of this scale and scope without doing every bit of due diligence we can would be irresponsible. We hope the governor will respond quickly to our request.
State Reps. Kristine Lytton and Jeff Morris represent Washington's 40th legislative district, which comprises all of San Juan County and significant portions of Whatcom and Skagit counties, including Mount Vernon, Burlington, Anacortes and much of Bellingham.